Occupation and corruption

The day businessman David Apel was indicted for, among other things, bribing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Member of Knesset Michael Eitan was one of the few political personalities from the coalition who agreed to be interviewed on the subject. Eitan told TV viewers: "That’s the way it is here; when a right wing prime minister is suspected of corruption the opposing camp is up in arms–and vice versa".

Thus Eitan, in a single sentence, captured the total politicization of Israel’s normative system, along with the unbreakable link between it and the occupation. The "camp", after all, is defined first and foremost on the basis of its attitude toward the occupation or the solution it prefers for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the rest is a byproduct of this association, including the attitude toward corruption.

This politicization has fouled all objective norms for assessing the behavior of elected officials and public figures. Within the camp, tribal style, the rule is to exonerate anyone who has strayed from the path of righteousness and to demand only the heads of those in the opposing camp. Even now, when suspicions concerning Sharon’s behavior are piling up daily, only the weak political opposition is calling upon the prime minister to provide clear answers. The politicians in his own camp, whose fate depends on his, are silent–as are those who elected him. They are more frightened of transferring power to the "enemy camp" than of the corruption that threatens Israeli society. Thus do money and power walk hand in hand, unfettered, as long as they take the political path supported by the majority. What’s a "Greek island"–one of the cases in which the names of Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, are mentioned as recipients of bribes–against the opportunity to prevent a weakened prime minister from removing a single illegal outpost?

This is not the way to fight corruption, but rather to perpetuate it. Pretty soon we can replace the Magen David (Star of David) on the national flag with a yellow banana.

The Israeli collective memory still focuses on the resignation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from his first government in 1977 after it was revealed that his wife maintained an illegal dollar account in an American bank. That kind of reaction is unthinkable today. In the late 1980s tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets under the slogan "we’re fed up with crooks." Then, the public reaction to corruption led to a change in the electoral system, which also failed. But today there are no such demonstrations. Everything goes: straw non-governmental organizations that bankroll election campaigns; vote buying; and even an attempt by a businessman to purchase a Greek island with the help of politicians. The prevailing public mood holds that everyone is corrupt–hence those in power should at least be "our crooks". For their part, the ruling circles exploit the security situation and the public’s fear of terrorism and fabricate non-accountable modes of governance.

One factor abetting this atmosphere is the sectoral nature of Israeli society. Instead of a demanding civil society, we have interest groups. The public’s assets are not considered as deposits held on account for services rendered to it, but rather as "catch as catch can" booty for specific interest groups. Like soldiers who conquer a village and loot its TV sets, anyone who takes power pillages whatever assets he/she finds. The public, for its part, is preoccupied with an existential struggle to survive, paralyzed by fear of terrorism and groaning under the yoke of a collapsing economy–itself a direct consequence of the ongoing occupation. Under these circumstances, it has neither the strength nor the capacity to demand transparency and accountability from the government.

Thus does the public cultivate, with its own hands, the fertile soil for the growth of corruption. The unemployed Israeli, worried sick about his/her son who is serving in the territories and afraid to get on a bus, has a hard time delving into the details of the case of Cyril Kern and the money he gave the prime minister, and has long forgotten the election bribery cases that implicated MK Naomi Blumenthal.

Midst these bewildering complications, the media plays a strange role. Corruption cases grab the front-page headlines and thousands of words are written and spoken daily about them. So what? The media is in any case suspect of left wing sympathies, of giving expression to the Palestinian narrative–and the public doesn’t really believe what it reads and hears. Corruption becomes a drama that sells newspapers, and the contents of the front pages are treated like gossip columns.

No wonder so many are dreaming of a strong leader who’ll restore order. Some are even warning that this is exactly the kind of soil in which fascism thrives.